The Closet Which Was Not and Is Not There

The snake of time is a strange essence. Having rolled up into a ring, it lies somewhere at infinity, and minutes, days, years, and centuries are trapped in a great majority of its scales. They whisper, true, that in the old days the strong black magician Ludwig Snot-Nose put a spell on the snake. The essence of this spell is that time always runs too fast in one’s happy moments, whereas during unpleasant ones it drags on, like cold pasta wound around a fork and will in no way end.

During the first lesson of practical magic Tanya specifically pondered this and the vacations that flashed past imperceptibly, looking with loathing at her slippery cauldron, smelly after the summer, along the bottom of which crawled disgusting white maggots, having managed to appear not without the help of numerous Tibidox flies. But then Professor Stinktopp was extremely satisfied with this, asserting that filth gave additional magic abilities to the cauldrons.

“Not a bad rest! Three weeks lying in magic station so as to discover later that one cannot bathe after bonegrafts! What’s the sense of being a magician if you’re allowed less than the most common moronoid?” Tanya reflected, simultaneously trying not to miss the explanations of Professor Stinktopp.

The wrinkled professor of practical magic walked leisurely around the class and, dropping quick glances in all directions with his spiteful eyes the colour of dried orange peel, growled:

“For ze preparation of elixir of foresight you take one large leaf of burdock and vrap up in it flovers of fern and finely ground agate. Copy? Zen you add a splinter of a coffin, dragon mucus, fur of a dead rat, stone from ze goitre of a chicken, and boil efferyzing in svamp vater. Ven it boil, you must not lover a spoon in zere, but stir it viz a cut off frog leg! If you do efferyzing sehr gut, zen ven ze slush begin to boil — somezing interesting vill happen! Copy efferyzing? But now schnell, schnell, young dumdums! Do efferyzing as I said! And I vill vatch you viz great pleasure!”

In Professor Stinktopp’s voice was concealed malicious joy, so badly hidden that all the students noticed it. Even the professor’s favourite Rita On-The-Sly suspiciously raised her head. Coffinia Cryptova squinted, first trying to consider what filth would be prepared by Stinktopp.

Spurred on by an impatient Stinktopp bobbing up and down, the second graders set about pounding agate and getting flowers of fern from a leather bag. Meanwhile Gunya Glomov, transferred into grade two only because in first grade he had mortally bored all instructors, was chasing a dead rat, which had shown extraordinary quickness and bolted, having bitten Gunya’s finger.

Professor Stinktopp grumbled, claiming that one of the senior pupils had revived the rat and that he, Stinktopp, would definitely report this disgrace to Slander Slanderych. Finally Stinktopp calmed down, drank two spoonfuls of cognac with bile, and even permitted Rite On-The-Sly to partially pluck his waistcoat, which he had already been wearing for many centuries in a row without taking it off.

“Now indeed he wasn’t thinking that she’s his rat!” Making a face, Bab-Yagun whispered to Tanya.

Tanya lit the fire under the cauldron and, stirring slowly with a frog leg, began to wait for the swamp water to boil. Occasionally either the boiled burdock or the flower of fern floated to the surface. The sliver of a coffin pensively turned like a compass needle in the smelly bubble coming up from the bottom.

At the same time Tanya was curiously watching Vanka Valyalkin, who recently, after attempting to unnoticeably eat a cutlet, dropped it into the cauldron. Now a thick orange smoke was belching from the cauldron; Vanka tried to hide it from Stinktopp, covering the cauldron with the lid. But this did not help. The smoke nevertheless belched, and on top of that it squeaked with a rusty senile voice. Vanka probably had disturbed the rest of some ancient genie. Now the genie was rioting and breaking for freedom.

As Vanka neither tried nor leaned on the cover, Professor Stinktopp discovered this disgrace. With a single red spark he forced the genie to evaporate, and gave Vanka a fat two in his mark book.

Bab-Yagun and Zhora Zhikin, founders of the secret Order of Dumdums, immediately congratulated Vanka for initiative, and Gunya Glomov shook his hand until he himself got excited. Only then would Glomov calm down and with satisfaction sank to his place.

Suddenly Dusya Dollova almost soared to the ceiling and, miraculously not overturning the cauldron, joyfully began to yell:

“Ah! All the same they’ll give me the leather suit as a gift! How cute I’ll look in it!”

Rushing to Dusya’s cauldron, the second graders saw that it was already boiling and it reeked of a marshy slush. The rest could only see Dollova herself, who continued to raptly squeal something about a leather suit.

“Sehr Gut! Dolloff did efferyzing correctly!” Stinktopp approved.

A minute later the slush boiled at Rita On-The-Sly. In contrast to Dollova, the reserved Rita kept secret what she saw. Only here eyes were glued to the seething cauldron and she was smiling mysteriously.

And then... then everybody was spending their time rushing from one cauldron to another. In the air hung a smelly smoke, from which the eyes watered and the throat tickled. Only Professor Stinktopp alone, who adored awful odours, was pulling it with pleasure into his nose similar to a duck’s beak and was smirking mysteriously.

Tanya was about to rush to Bab-Yagun, shouting that he saw the results of the semi-final of the world dragonball championship, when suddenly something started to seethe quite close by. She understood that her cauldron was boiling.

Forgetting about everything, Tanya leaned over the cauldron and began to peer impatiently into the smoking slush. For a long time she saw nothing except the burdock already boiled quite soft and the shimmering oily stains of dragon mucus. Tanya thought that something had gone wrong with the preparation of the elixir. Having decided to hide this from Professor Stinktopp in order to not infuriate him and not be enrolled into the Order of Dumdums, the girl wanted to pretend that she saw something. She sank her head lower and suddenly understood that the cauldron had disappeared somewhere. The outlines of the classroom washed away. Someone was standing directly in front of Tanya.

She darted, shrieked, and fell through somewhere...

She came to from a sharp smell. Looking around, Tanya understood that she was sitting on a chair, the second graders were crowding all around, and Professor Stinktopp was holding in front of her nose a phial with smelling salt.

Observing that the girl had come to, Stinktopp with explicit pleasure sniffed the smelling salt, squawked, and, winking his watery eyes alternately, asked:

“Ah-ah-ah! Vat’s viz you? Perhaps, you see somezing special, huh?”

“No... nothing... I simply felt sick... from the stink,” Tanya barely whispered.

“Aha! You hear zis? Nerffous young Grotter fear green slime!” Professor Stinktopp drawled mockingly.

Coffinia and Verka Parrotova began to neigh disgustingly.

Tanya tried not to look at anyone. Just now she had lied to Stinktopp, but did not feel repentance. The truth was too terrible and it was more than possible for her to recount to Stinktopp.

Indeed could she utter in everybody’s hearing what she saw, how the academician Sardanapal was sitting in a tight cell, face hidden in a chipped bowl with swill, and beside him, hardly distinguishable in that seething swampy slush, stood a tall bony figure muffled in a raincoat?

For a long time, for a very long time Tanya remembered to the smallest detail the image that flickered for an instant. How real was this foresight? Is it possible to trust it? And if possible, what to do about it now — run to Sardanapal and relate it to him? It is very doubtful that the academician would treat her warning seriously.

Finally, the lesson ended.

Professor Stinktopp, after stunning the class with completely insane homework, was pulled in the hammock to the hatch located in the ceiling.

“Listen, Yagun, was I unconscious for long?” Tanya asked.

Yagun shook his head.

“Ne-a. At most — half a minute. I watch: any minute now you’re going to fall into the cauldron and I caught you. Vanka and I put you on the chair, and here Stinktopp is already mincing over with his little bottle. Well, and his face was malicious! I even thought: did he specially cook up all this? Perhaps, gave you some special sliver or whispered something to the slime?”

Unceremoniously pushing Yagun aside, Coffinia walked past importantly, surrounded by a whole crowd of admirers, whom she now had even more of than Katya Lotkova. After that luckily thrown ball, allowing Tibidox to advance to the semi-final, Cryptova simply enjoyed unbelievable success. When she appeared at dinner in the Hall of Two Elements, the school became quiet for several moments, after which many burst into applause.

One enamoured third grader — a very shy youth by the name of Shuonk Chpurikov — once spilled over himself a pot of soup just to draw Coffinia’s attention to himself. By the way, Chpurikov came into Tibidox because every time he blushed, he became invisible without any desire on his part. Indeed he blushed constantly.

Unexpectedly some kind of noise was heard in the corridor. Coffinia‘s admirers, crowding around her, quickly rushed back to the stairs.

Towards them, catching the floor with the fingers of his long arms, leisurely walked Tararakh, the instructor of veterinary magic, behind whom Usynya and Gorynya were dragging the infuriated immortal wild boar. Steam poured from the nostrils of the wild boar and fragments of an ancient, seemingly Greek or Persian, spear protruded from its back.

Noticing Tanya, Vanka Valyalkin, and Bab-Yagun, the pithecanthropus stopped and merrily turned to them:

“Why are you so glum? Come from Stinktopp? What did you cook there? Temporary glue? Ointment from warts?”

“As if! Elixir of foresight... Mix with frog leg, throw in coffin slivers, and wait till it boils!” Vanka Valyalkin explained.

Tararakh’s eyebrows crawled to his forehead in amazement.

“In second grade? Elixir of foresight? If I’m not entirely off my rocker, according to the program you now have yawning liqueur, decoction of malice, dense-bang mixture, and all kinds of nonsense in this vein. You muddled up something!”

“We studied elixir!” Valyalkin began to argue heatedly.

“But you couldn’t be!” Tararakh brushed it off.

“Yes, we did, did, did!” Vanka was not a bit less excited than his favourite instructor.

The pithecanthropus wanted to object, but at this moment Usynya let go of the hind legs of the wild boar and started to slap himself on the forehead, attempting to nail a persistent fly. The wild boar broke loose, knocked Tararakh off his feet, and swiftly dashed along the corridor in the direction of the office of Slander Slanderych.

The students jumped in different directions, escaping from the wild boar.

“What, have you gone nuts? And if Slander finds out that we drag a magic beast along the corridors! He precisely forbade it very strictly!” Tararakh began to yell at the heroes and dashed off in pursuit.

Gorynya rushed after him, but Usynya, with his nails, picked up the murdered fly by a wing, brought it to his eyes, and contemplated his trophy with satisfaction for some time. Finally he was wearied of it. He sighed, for some reason hid the fly in his breast pocket, and leisurely started to awkwardly follow his brother.

After the last lesson — studies of evil spirits with Medusa Gorgonova, in which they studied talking begbugs (Vanka and Tanya were chuckling the entire lesson, remembering Professor Stinktopp and in a whisper making all kinds of interesting assumptions on his account) — the friends set off for the Hall of Two Elements. The entire Tibidox had already assembled there for the holiday dinner.

A beaming Professor Sardanapal — rosy, well-fed, with cheeks like a round loaf — in a smart red caftan with laces, with the downy beard combed, wound three times around his belt, stood up in the centre — in the enormous sun mosaic laid out on the marble floor. His luxurious moustaches — the right green and the left yellow — thoughtfully held the eyeglasses with the loose temples.

Impressively puffing up his cheeks like a samovar, the for-life and posthumous head of Tibidox opened the small chest, from which two smart fellows immediately jumped out and began with astounding speed to spread the magic tablecloths.

“Only look at Sardanapal! He’s a living Grandfather Frost!” Valyalkin started to whisper, imperceptibly nudging Tanya and Bab-Yagun.

Tanya mistrustfully looked at the head of Tibidox and suddenly realized that Vanka was right. In the red caftan, with the beard, Sardanapal amazingly resembled Grandfather Frost. Perhaps, the academician only needed a fur trimmed hat and a voluminous bag.

No, it cannot be that this greatest of the currently living magicians would find himself in a tight cell! Anything could be imagined in Stinktopp’s contaminated cauldron, where the swampy slush for sure was mixed with the white worms that do not form part of the elixir and spoiled it!

Sensing that they were looking at him, Sardanapal turned to their table. And in the next minute the quick fine fellows from the chest, given a special sign by the academician, tossed a tablecloth into the air.

“Oh, my granny mama, again this tablecloth with grated horseradish! I’ll hang myself to get away from these vitamins. Sardanapal really finished us off and we’re even ‘white!’ What a Grandpa Frost!” Bab-Yagun began to moan.

It was not known whether the academician heard this or not, but he sternly threatened Yagun with a finger.

The ears of Yagge’s grandson started to shimmer timidly and he stuck a fork into a big lump of horseradish. It was good then that the ‘wafer’ tablecloth fell on the neighbouring table, and Seven-Stump-Holes, taking pity, passed to them a very decent cake with chocolate and condensed milk.

True, on moving the cake, Stump went a little too far and the cake left a stain on Bab-Yagun’s overalls.

“What, have you gone crazy? Not playing dragonball, you know!” Yagun began to yell.

“Pardon me, I absentmindedly gave you a curve ball,” the Tibidox forward guiltily made a helpless gesture.

At the end of the dinner Medusa Gorgonova loudly clapped her hands, attracting attention.

“A minute! I want to make a small announcement! This morning a cupid came to us with a message from the world dragonball council! Whom the Tibidox team must meet in the semi-final has been determined. Our opponent will be...” Professor Gorgonova maintained the wearisome pause: “the Afghan genies!”

Dead silence hung for an instant above the Hall of Two Elements, and then all at once everybody broke away from their places and began to shout. Gunya Glomov, out of the fullness of his feelings, even overturned the table. Slander Slanderych sent a cyclops to carry Gunya by an ear out of the hall, and the cyclops did it with the greatest pleasure.

In the centuries-old history of dragonball the Afghan genies became the world champion almost more often than the remaining teams. In overall rating, they were even ahead of the gandharvas and the babai and only marginally inferior to the Invisibles. Not without reason sport reviewers called them “the world bouncers.” Any team meeting the genies on the play field suffered defeat with an immense score.

“Well, that’s it! The end for us! Now we’re definitely not breaking through to the final!” The defeatist Damien Goryanov exclaimed.

“The main thing, you don’t fall off the vacuum. All the same you’re of no use. In Nightingale’s place I would have replaced you with Dusya Dollova long ago,” Bab-Yagun stated.

Dollova winked gratefully, but the tactless Yagun immediately added:

“After seeing her in the air, all the genies will immediately begin to die from laughter and will miss all the balls. But Dusya won’t waste time; she will fall onto the head of their captain and set about squeezing him...”

A green spark, large as a chicken egg, was shot from the ring of Medusa and burst with a dry crack.

“Attention please! On behalf of the instructors of the school of Tibidox I intend to give a pleasant surprise to the best player who presented herself magnificently in the match with the gandharvas!”

Hardly having heard about a surprise, Coffinia immediately leaped up and with the most readiness advanced forward. It seemed she was disturbed by one thought only: did she have enough hands to take all the pleasant surprises and whether it was necessary to mobilize her boyfriends for this.

However, Medusa did not even turn in her direction. Instead she gave someone a sign. Four grave panting house-spirits in Russian caftans brought into the hall a large, magnificently polished instrument. The cap of one of the house-spirits walking behind it was always slipping down over its eyes.

Inspecting with interest what the house-spirits were carrying, Tanya absentmindedly admired the new polish, giving the instrument, which — of this she was convinced — she had never seen before, a pleasant walnut nuance.

“It was necessary for our masters to work for a while before they brought it back to the proper form. They had to replace the strings, cover it entirely with new varnish, and seriously restore the finger-board. There was no special hurry, and for this very reason I asked them to do everything without hurry and thoroughly,” impatiently watching, as if expecting someone, Medusa continued.

No one came out. Professor Stinktopp caustically giggled and looked sideways at Sardanapal.

Vanka nudged Tanya with a shoulder.

“Hey, what’s with you? Fallen asleep? Go quickly! It’s your double bass!” He was astonished.

“Not mine!” She growled.

“What do you mean not yours? Look carefully! What, can’t you recognize it?” Vanka was angry.

Tanya did not move from her spot. The house-spirits approached her and started to chirp excitedly, clearly demanding that they be freed from their burden. Especially indignant was the one who could not fix the cap that kept slipping down: its hands were occupied.

With no more doubts remaining, the girl took the double bass. The strings began to hum — softly and simultaneously, like an acquaintance. Tanya’s heart trembled. In the past month a day did not pass that she would not think about her instrument, but to the question of where it was and what had happened to it, all the instructors somehow kept significantly silent, and, in the end, Tanya stopped puzzling over it. And now suddenly this...

Tanya even did not know whether she was glad or not — everything somehow was mixed up in her thoughts.

Medusa approached her.

“I hope you’re not offended that we returned the double bass to you only now and in general kept everything secret? To tell you the truth, everything was already ready a week ago, but Sardanapal waited until Yagge has given you permission to begin training. This morning we finally entreated her. Try to be in shape for the match with the genies… Well, at least you’re glad?”

“Don’t know... I’m... yes... glad...” Tanya answered incoherently.

Medusa looked at her with understanding and smiled. Tanya guided her hand along the finger-board, on which there was not one noticeable crack now. It could not be determined if the Rope had suffered or not, but she had decided not to ask Medusa directly about this. Indeed it would be better to carefully clarify this later with the house-spirits, which, getting up on tiptoes, were standing beside her and trying to look into her face. They were also waiting for something, but what? Tanya smiled at them, but this clearly did not satisfy the house-spirits.

“And when’s the match?” Tanya asked.

Medusa shrugged her shoulders.

“The precise date has not been determined so far. There is complete confusion in the Sports Committee of the Magciety of Jerky Magtion. Likely, the poor devils got an evil eye again... In any event, first the Invisibles must meet with the Polar spirits. And only afterward will our match with the Afghan genies take place. Certainly Nightingale will inform you in advance,” she said.

A good half of Tibidox had already crowded around Tanya. Students literally climbed on each other’s shoulders in order to have a look at the restored double bass. Kuzya Tuzikov accidentally stepped on the beloved corn of Slander Slanderych, which he, experiencing solitude until the encounter with the mermaid, had cherished for the past two hundred years. The stern dean of Tibidox set up such a howl that the ancient spirits imprisoned behind the Sinister Gates immediately responded to it.

“Everyone march to class, else I’ll cast an evil eye! Quick!” Slander began to yell, pouting and reddening to his bald spot. Red sparks began to leap from his ring, and several plates on the tables shattered. The fine fellows from the chest began to remove the tablecloths in a hurry.

The students gushed out in different directions. Slander had a bad reputation in Tibidox. Even Dentistikha could not always remove his evil eye, especially cast in a fit of temper (or as Vanka joked, “under the hot bald patch”).

Passing by Tanya while surrounded by her retinue, Coffinia stopped and provocatively stared at her.

“How do you like that, ‘best player!’ Probably you arranged everything, huh? Will my glory not to be left in peace?” She was interested.

“Come off it, Crypt!” Tanya snapped. But Coffinia did not lay off.

“I don’t understand what these instructors find in you! With what happiness you walk around as their pet, Grotter? Not one ball you scored in the last match, and earlier the snake bow helped you — everyone knows this... Maybe you’ll tell tales on us about everything, huh?” She continued.

Coffinia’s flunkies started to neigh. While Vanka Valyalkin and Bab-Yagun prepared to give a rebuff, although the scuffle would clearly be mismatched, Cryptova moved forward and, as if by chance, pushed Tanya’s shoulder.

The strings of the double bass began to hum and — Coffinia began to squeal, a sticky slush smeared on her face. Well, in general, if we look at everything from a philosophical point of view, to have a ladle filled to the brim with pudding stuck to your head is indeed not so unpleasant. Besides, the pudding was fresh, tasty, and everything in this vein... However, Cryptova nevertheless for some reason was not pleased. There live in the world such girls, whom you cannot make happy with anything even if you try till you collapse!

* * *

When everyone was already setting off to class, Sardanapal ran into the Hall of Two Elements. His untied moustaches — the right green and the left yellow — were pertly flicking on the glasses.

“Quick! All students remain in Tibidox, and instructors come with me! Where’s Medusa? Where’s Tararakh?” He shouted.

“What happened?” Rita On-The-Sly started to worry.

“The water-sprites and the wood-goblins are again battling for the ruins!” Sardanapal answered absentmindedly, not even noticing that he had answered someone he should not. Rita On-The-Sly was eternally mistaken as someone else. Indeed such was her magic ability.

Soon all the instructors dashed away somewhere, taking with them as heavy artillery Usynya, Gorynya and Dubynya. The students, dying of curiosity, rushed to follow, but the cyclops at the gate had been given a strict order to let no one out. Rattling with the chain, Dumpling Maker partitioned off the drawbridge with a rail and, playing with the poleaxe, got up next to the wheel.

Gunya Glomov, Damien Goryanov, Seven-Stump-Holes, and Kuzya Tuzikov began to tease him, but the cyclops only chuckled indulgently. Attempting to bring him to white heat, the pranksters did not forget to follow whether the eye of the cyclops had started to revolve in orbit or roll under. This meant the time to promptly take to one’s heels — even Dentistikha could not remove the evil eye of Dumpling Maker.

Bab-Yagun pulled Tanya by the hand.

“I know where we’ll be able to see everything! Come! Only quietly so that any Goryanov doesn’t stick to us!” He whispered, unnoticeably moving back.

“And what are these ruins Sardanapal was talking about? Where do they come from at all? Tibidox has been rebuilt!” Tanya asked.

Yagun looked at her with mockery.

“What does it have to do with Tibidox? You must think there is nothing on Buyan besides Tibidox!”

“But where?”

“Well, you’re boring me with your questions! One might suppose that your last name is Pain-in-the-Neck... Later you’ll understand, run!” His ears impatiently shimmering, Yagun interrupted her.

They ran past the inside courtyard of the Tower of Ghosts and found themselves on the tight, overgrown with hawthorn, little square between the desolate wall and the tower.

Having scrambled onto the shoulders of Vanka, accusing him of the intention of crushing his head, Yagun slipped into a small niche and pulled his friends after himself. They found themselves on a narrow staircase covered with a red carpet. From time to time the carpet shuddered and inflated like a bubble — under it the sleeping poltergeist Mikheich was making a racket.

Somewhere below in the basements, the mixed choir of ghosts were rehearsing, performing Kalinka-Malinka. The chorus sounded well, but the thin treble of Lieutenant Rzhevskii clearly interfered with it. The brash spectre sang not only past the notes but also, it seems, another song altogether.

“Hey, what are you doing there, sleepyhead? Decided to sign up for the choir also?” Yagun shouted impatiently, lowering his head already from the next landing.

Tanya, looking around, got up and in no way could get rid of the feeling that she had already been here once. This feeling only strengthened when on the way they came upon two black headstones. After noticing the friends, the headstones roused themselves.

“Tanya Grotter. At long last! Uncle Herman,” was written on the headstone on the right.

“Bab-Yagun and Vanka Valyalkin. To brothers from mourning Glomov,” Gothic letters mockingly began to jump on the adjacent one.

Not able to control herself, Tanya launched a Briskus into the headstones and immediately felt sorry about this.

“Tanya Valyalkina. From grandsons and great-grandsons,” the right headstone angrily highlighted.

“Tanya Yagunova, stupid orphan. From the moronoid house management,” the left one began to argue.

“Here’s a dirty trick! I was wrong to get mixed up with them. Good that neither Vanka nor Yagun noticed anything,” Tanya thought and whisked upstairs in a hurry. Soon they were already standing on the little narrow viewing balcony, the jutting out canopy which hung exactly above the ditch.

Tanya thought that earlier she was never in that part of the Island Buyan and completely did not know it. The windows of her room in the Big Tower looked out onto the internal courtyard and the play lawns. The Dragonball field was on the other side.

“And there are the ruins... Where are you looking? More to the right... The-re, to where Usynya and Gorynya are running!” Bab-Yagun gave up.

Having stared at it, Tanya saw that the ditch proceeded to the swampy bed of a brook, overgrown to a disgrace with prickly stubbles of reed, and that, in turn, ended at the lake. On the shore, half splashing in the water, half rotting on dry land, the ruins stretched, sullenly goggling at Tibidox with blind collapsed windows.

Now a genuine battle was in full swing at the ruins. Transparent, elastic water-sprites, something similar to wineskins well-packed with slime, attacked squeaking, clumsy wood-goblins. On the side of the water-sprites appeared also a shock brigade of mermaids, of whom the famous chosen one of Slander was kicking up a bigger row than all. She howled, knocked down wood-goblins with powerful hits of her tail, and threw rotten fish, which some decrepit green duckweed helpfully brought to her, at them.

“In no way will they share the ruins. One half is in the water — meaning, the kingdom of the water-sprites. But what offends the wood-goblins is that the second half joins the forest. A year hasn’t pass that they haven’t fought because of these ruins. Later they’ll reconcile, for a while they’ll live in peace, and again swing at each other’s noses. In a word, evil spirits, what will you do with them...” explained Yagun.

The instructors of Tibidox were trying to separate the fighters, but so far the result had turned out to be the most lamentable.

Medusa, forced to step back, fired sparks from the side of the wood-goblins. Professor Stinktopp already hung his head down from the nearest tree and in a thin voice squeaked the threat:

“You don’t know viz whom you’re dealing! I’ll turn you into small okroshka! Ah, I fear height!”

The academician Sardanapal, knocked off his feet, was already being tickled by two mermaids, and a third dragged over a pair of tremendous garden scissors with the explicit intention of cutting his beard. Dentistikha, attempting to pacify the water-sprites, was set down by them in a puddle and was now angrily jumping up and down, trying to concoct an evil eye in return. Tararakh was capitally hit on the ear by a club, and in the next second he was literally swept away by a hailstorm of dry Caspian roach from the catapults of the water-sprites.

“But it’s merry there! We have some funky Teaches!” Vanka said approvingly.

“You said it!” Bab-Yagun said proudly. “You should have seen how they battled with the wood-goblins the year before last! And the water-sprites almost carried Stinktopp off to the bottom! His pants were completely stuffed with duck-weed.”

“Listen, Yagun, what was in these ruins earlier?” Tanya asked. Bab-Yagun frowned.

“Well... Ruins — they’re ruins. On the whole, incomprehensible what to fight for here. All the same neither the wood-goblins nor the water-sprites live here. Never even visit, so my granny says.”

“What, never visit?”

“Never visit. They also disdain Tibidox, in general everything built by magicians, and here bang, how angry! One word — Buyan Island!”

“But do they somehow explain this? Their hostility?” Tanya was interested. Yagun hesitated.

“Ugh, fat chance! There’s never such a thing as evil spirits explaining something to magicians. They’re by themselves, we’re by ourselves,” Yagun categorically stated.

He rubbed his snub nose with a finger and pensively continued:

“True, there are all kinds of rumours about these ruins. Seemingly here was the gatehouse of The Ancient One, which he built even before Tibidox. But indeed why he abandoned this gatehouse later — I haven’t the faintest idea. Yes, supposedly, there were reasons... No, look, look how incensed these evil spirits got!”

The battle for the ruins was in full swing. Several times the water-sprites forced the wood-goblins back into the thick of the woods, but reinforcement came to them — and by then they forced the water-sprites into their lake. Professor Stinktopp was no longer hanging on a tree. His excitedly kicking legs protruded from some burrow.

Finally Usynya, Gorynya, and Dubynya, who were pelted by a hail of branches and slipping from the slime on the stones, got rather tired of being whipping boys. Their Herculean patience melted more swiftly than ice-cream on the tongue of eight graders dreaming of getting tonsillitis.

“They’re beating...” shouted Usynya.

“!” Gorynya finished.

Dubynya wanted to add something more intellectual, but was not able to and, maliciously spitting out a lump that had flown into his mouth, shook his fists in silence.

The raging hero-bouncers caught the water-sprites and began to pile them into the lake one by one. Having disposed of all the water-sprites, they started after the wood-goblins and soon finally pushed them back into the forest.

The reasonable mermaids, seeing that the battle was nearly over, threw away the scissors and began to thoughtfully clean the algae and snails off Academician Sardanapal. The decrepit duckweed, sympathetically clicking its tongue, with great care extracted Professor Stinktopp from the burrow.

A wood-goblin late to the battle came out of a wind-fallen tree, enormous and stooping. Standing for a while, leaning against a pine, it began to creak and again disappeared into the woods.

“That’s it, back to class! No more to do here. The most interesting has ended,” said Yagun.

* * *

Tanya was busy with lessons till the evening. For the next day it was necessary to learn dozens of spells for Dentistikha’s removal of evil eye and on top of that to prepare for the first class with Slander Slanderych, who would begin to teach the second grade protection from spirits — a subject that was not in the year before. In the school there were the most unbelievable rumours about protection from spirits. They asserted that Slander, as a former black magician, seemingly did not protect from spirits as much as set them on his students.

Bab-Yagun, repeatedly making Slander hopping mad with his tricks, feared in advance tomorrow’s class. Afraid to be caught unawares, he got hold of a pile of talismans and now hung them unnoticeably under his clothing and concealed them in his sleeves.

“As soon as Slander let loose the spirits on me — right away! — I’ll reach for a foolproof piece. He’ll get it hot! Oh, my granny mama, I’m uneasy about something...” muttered Yagun.

Having finished with the lessons, Tanya grabbed the case with the double bass and rushed to the dragonball field. She feared that the instrument would roam. Were the house-spirits, overhauling the instrument, able to not ruin the initial design of Theophilus Grotter?

Having climbed onto the double bass, Tanya uttered: Speedus envenomus! The double bass trembled, lifted slightly above the field, as if gathering its spirit, and then swiftly jerked forward. Tanya, after weeks spent in magic station, out of practice with this speed, barely knew how to keep her place on it.

After two or three circles over the field Tanya was certain that the flight characteristics of the instrument had not deteriorated, though it manoeuvred a little not quite like before. Earlier it obeyed any, even the most insignificant movement, now it slowed somewhat.

“Tighten the pins a little so that the strings stretch. Of course, the clever fellows were too clever by half with the polishing, well, no matter, it doesn’t affect the speed,” the ring grumbled jealously.

Tanya calmed down. It meant that great-grandfather found nothing to worry about.

“And the Rope of the Seventeen Hanged Men did not break?” Tanya hurried to ask; however, grandfather Theophilus did not give this question a definite answer.

The ring mysteriously hesitated, irrelevantly shot a couple of sparks, and became silent.

Having tightened the pins, Tanya got up high above the island, where constant airstreams began. One of them set off to the east, and another — into cold Antarctica, populated by mysterious spirits, which almost nothing was known about and which it was not possible to call either friends or enemies of magicians.

Trying not to fall into these air streams in order not to be carried away, Tanya, keeping on the edge, flew over the shore. Long sandy stretches alternated with eroded cliffs. On one of the sandy stretches the bearded sea king Neptune was bashfully soaping and cleaning some of his linen. Beside him in the shallow water lay his trident.

In the first second Tanya wanted to rush over his head and tease him a little, but she reconsidered. To get mixed up with Neptune was dangerous. He could unceremoniously summon a storm. Moreover, according to rumours, he was a good friend of Professor Stinktopp.

A cold wind gusted from the ocean, sprays reached her, and Tanya turned the double bass around and directed it south of Tibidox — to the woods, which occupied a substantial part of the island. For some not entirely intelligible reason the students were forbidden to walk into this forest. True, the ban was extended only to strolling by foot. Along the majority of the paths were special guard spells — Slander and Dentistikha, rare masters of magical trickeries, had already worked on this for a while. If one of them was set off, Slander would immediately teleport himself to this place, and the consequences were sufficiently unpleasant for the offenders. The least it was possible to get away with was grinding earthworms in the meat grinder, preparing stuffing for the griffins, and enduring the mockery of the omnipresent ghosts all through the vacations.

“A strange thing. Why are they so attached to these woods? It’s possible even to think that the Teaches fear something. One cannot get lost there — can always send a signal spark... No, there’s clearly something else here,” thought Tanya.

Now, rushing over the forest on the double bass, Tanya attentively looked down. The further it was, the more impassable the wind-fallen trees. Moss-covered trunks piled up side by side along the paths.

“Sardanapal could send cyclopes here to rake up everything, but for some reason he’s not doing it...” Tanya decided.

Keeping above the tops of the trees, she crossed the forest in a slant and again found herself along the shore — true, from the other side of the island, where the powerful roots of pines courageously fought with the friable cliffs. It began to get dusky. Tanya had already intended to turn around when unexpectedly it seemed to her that she saw a rippling white haze.

The girl guessed that, confusing directions in the darkness, she was again approaching Tibidox, but only from the other side. Yet, up to the white haze, it was rising... from the ruins. From those most uninhabited ruins of The Ancient One’s gatehouse, which were now directly underneath. Tanya replaced the high-speed spell with the slow — Pilotus kamikazis — and approached carefully, trying to hide behind the crowns of the trees.

Smoke was pouring from a pipe like a reproachful brick thumb jutting from the collapsed roof. The first two windows were half flooded with water. Water beetles flickered flippantly among the emerald duckweed. The high stone porch-gallery, like in the ancient buildings of Suzdal, went directly out to the lake and there suddenly broke off.

“One of two things: either The Ancient One had an oddity and he adored to bathe in slime, or the lake flooded the house considerably later,” Tanya said to herself.

The meadow still bore the tracks of the recent battle. Here and there were grooves from the boots of the heroes. Mermaid scales gleamed. From a deep ditch poked out an arc of Sardanapal’s crushed glasses. On the side, next to a scrap of material from Medusa’s raincoat, was scattered Stinktopp’s absurd shoe with a bow like those of an old woman. Tanya picked it up and discovered inside the shoe the hidden lift which made the short professor taller by five centimetres.

“Well, Stinktoppik! A sheer cheat! I’ll not be surprised if he turns out to have a hat with springs and high-heel slippers!” She decided.

The neglected gatehouse appeared not a bit better from the other side. Tanya thought that next to these ruins the Hut on Chicken Feet would simply seem like the tsar’s mansion. A large stove was visible through a crack in the wall.

Tanya went past, but was suddenly stunned. In the stove, managing without firewood, a bluish magic fire was buzzing smoothly. The thought flickered in Tanya that the wood-goblins or the water-sprites had started it, but then she understood that both groups abhorred fire and even in general, according to Yagun, had little interest in the structures of magicians.

After weighing all the pros and cons, young Grotter felt inside that she was not in the least drawn. On the contrary — she was even pulled to get further away from here. Moreover, she accidentally discovered that one of the bushes was somehow twinkling strangely and seemingly spreading a bit. Furthermore, its leaves were not shaking from the wind. On close examination, Tanya understood that a dark magic guard spell was stretched on the bush.

“Aha, Slander tried! Here’s indeed a workaholic pest!” Tanya thought, wisely keeping further away from the bush.

After jumping onto the double bass, she dashed to Tibidox, deciding that she must attempt to clarify why a fire was burning here. But, only how to find this out? Tanya could well imagine what would happen if she turned to the dean himself with this question. Slander would drop a quick glance at her with his closely set eyes, and in the next minute it would be necessary for her to take a bucket and with cheerful parade step, singing a song of the industrious evil spirits, to set off to gather stinkbugs.

No indeed, better to find out everything carefully from Sardanapal. It goes without saying, if that one is in a good mood and near him does not loom the disgusting sphinx living on the doors of his office and letting no one in without an invitation.

* * *

Late in the evening, having wiped the double bass with great care and stretched the strings, Tanya put the instrument away in the case. Just as she began to put it under the bed, a chuckle reached her from above.

“Well, get away from here quick, blockhead! Or I’ll launch a Briskus!” Coffinia threatened someone.

Cryptova had dragged herself to bed long ago and before going to sleep was turning over a thick comic book for dark magicians. Coffinia never read anything else except comics.

“Still here! I’m beginning to get a notion!” She snorted.

Occasionally Coffinia, for amusement, shook the comic book. Little yellowish-green devils fell from its pages and chirping in panic, hurried to climb back in. Cryptova, giggling, tied together the tails of some of them and was delighted as, pulling each other in different directions, they fell and rolled behind the bed.

“Well so, are you leaving or not?” Coffinia again shouted.

Lifting her head, Tanya saw that Lieutenant Rzhevskii was strolling along the ceiling of their room. This time the brash spectre was dressed in a turban and a robe with tassels. For some reason he even had a beard attached onto himself. True, the red and dark-blue nose of an alcoholic nevertheless gave him away.

“The floors are painted — can only walk on walls and ceilings!” Rzhevskii giggled.

“I’ll walk you!” Coffinia continued to rumble. “I’m counting to three! One...”

“Pointus harpoonus” Lieutenant quickly shouted. Something sparkled. Tanya saw that the spectre, by some improbable means, was holding an ancient signet ring on his hand.

Coffinia instantly collapsed with her nose in the pillow. The little devils from the comic book immediately started to run gloatingly along her clothing.

“What, have you gone nuts? Why did you lull her to sleep?” Tanya was astonished.

“There are types in life one doesn’t prevent from sleeping off drunkenness!” Rzhevskii said noncommittally. “And now keep quiet! Utter no names! I’m here incognito! If Eyeless Horror finds out that I was here, then that’s it — off with the head! I also have — hee-hee! — in my back twelve knives and one little dagger! Another nine and it will run over, as my friend the cornet Svintsov said.”

“Why? Since when can you not wander anywhere you fancy?” Tanya was interested.

“I can wander anywhere I want, day or night. I simply want no one to find out that I was here at yours. Just making sure that Coffinia will tattle to no one. After Pointus harpoonus it’s rarely possible to recall the circumstances with which you dropped of...” Lieutenant began to neigh and collapsed from the ceiling onto the floor.

Cutting into the rug, he lost his shape, flickered, but was quickly restored. Perhaps only the beard was lost and the head flattened a little, which, however, little affected his cognitive abilities.

“Brr! Some passage for evil spirits! I hate to suffer dampness! Like visiting your own grave... Nasty there, and I’m a complex and delicate person!” Lieutenant shivered, flowing between Black Curtains.

The Curtains stirred predatorily, but, having sorted out whom they were dealing with, immediately subsided. They related indifferently to spectres. It was not possible to make a mess of ghosts by muffling up the head. Furthermore, it was not possible to peep into their dreams, which later, while flying, could be shown to the entire Tibidox.

Tanya leaned over and picked up the ring, which had fallen from Lieutenant when he curiously rammed the floor with his head.

“Where did you get this?” She was interested.

“Ah-ha, this! Hugo the Sly lent it... possible to trust Hugo. After all, he’s also a spectre, although he prefers to live in his book and doesn’t show himself anywhere from it,” Rzhevskii informed her.

“Why is it that Hugo gave you the ring? He’s indeed stingy,” Tanya doubted.

She remembered very well the resilient roguish author of Tricks of White Magicians, with whom they slipped through to the Vanishing Floor at night.

Lieutenant Rzhevskii delicately looked down. He was modesty itself.

“Eh-ehh... You see, here’s the situation... Hugo accidentally lost his powdered wig and was suffering greatly. Even named a reward for the one who finds it...”

“And here, of course, you made your appearance?” Tanya asked. Rzhevskii beamed with pleasure.

“To snitch the wig was not quite as simple as you think. I had to take some pains!” He bragged. “And, have you considered why I dared all this? I awfully want to let you in on a secret.”

“What secret still?”

“A terrible, fatal secret! A secret, next to which the Vanishing Floor and even the Sinister Gates are small fry... So, interested?”

The Lieutenant stared wide-eyed for more mystery. However, “wide-eyed” was an understatement. No one asked him to pop his eyes out of orbit and puff them up like balls. Ghosts have their own ideas about humour.

Tanya waited. She did not believe too much in the existence of a fatal secret. Lieutenant Rzhevskii could be lying completely and this should not be taken seriously. True, now and then he succeeded in smelling out something actually worthwhile.

Rzhevskii listened suspiciously. Then, continuing to stand by the window, stretched out his neck a couple of metres — any giraffe would envy this telescopic neck-rod — and whispered heatedly in Tanya’s ear:

“Imagine, these blockheads think that no one else knows about the closet of The Ancient One and about the box. But I was right next to them! I saw everything! Slander even launched a Briskus at me, and then cast a mute spell! But I dashed to Hugo, and that one found a way to remove the spell. And at the same time lent me the ring! True, for this he was being generous after he lost the wig...”

The spectre stared narrowly at Tanya, checking how successful he was in intriguing her. Tanya forced herself to yawn. She knew that she only needed to show curiosity and the harmful Rzhevskii would begin, teasing her, to filter news drop by drop.

“Remember that terrible thunderstorm? All the time lightning was striking the Big Tower?” The spectre continued offended, not waiting for any question. “Towards the morning Slander, Medusa, and Sardanapal decided to check why it hit precisely this place and not another. They took torches and went along the stairs up to the garret. They hoped that no one would notice them, but I by chance turned up beside them...”

“By chance?” Tanya doubted. The Lieutenant blushed complacently.

“I was just hiding on the stairs. Thought, perhaps, I would frighten someone, and here suddenly were footsteps and all the trump cards of Tibidox appeared — ace, king, queen... Well, you understand, it would be foolish not to add the jack to this suit. I became invisible and floated after them. They climbed up to the garret, then went out onto the ledge outside — a sufficiently wide ledge there — and began to examine. But then Slander suddenly began to yell:

“‘Look, here’s a crack!’ Sardanapal and Slander enlarged it with some spell and squeezed through inside. And then Medusa also after them...”

“And you?”

Rzhevskii stared at her indulgently.

“Do you wish to laugh, young lady? I was there even earlier, nevertheless I’m not a joke, but a ghost! And an attic! A tight little closet, really a hole! Cobwebs in the corner. But most suitable as a hiding-place. Moreover The Ancient One was clearly keenly aware of the fifth dimension. Sardanapal, that one said in general:

“‘Strange room! I swear by my beard, it exists from within, but not from the outside!’ While he and Medusa discussed why The Ancient One needed all this, Slander noticed a box on the floor. He leaned over in order to take it, and — wham! bam! — he was pressed into the wall! What a show!!! Slander — and in the wall! Spread out like some dead toad! He in a rage shot several fight sparks at the box — but if only it would whimper, it didn’t even char! Imagine? I was downright thrilled! This powerful fight magic — and nothing.”

Describing this scene, the spectre enthusiastically grunted.

“And then Sardanapal undertook the matter,” he continued, “he squatted near the box and as if nothing were the matter took it in his hands. ‘You see what the problem is, Slander,’ he said. ‘Here is very interesting protection — only a white magician can take this box in hand. Only The Ancient One knew how to impose this protection.’”

“But Slander is now white!” Tanya exclaimed.

“Now white, but was originally black, and then later moved to white... In any case, the box in no way accepted him as white. Slander, it goes without saying, almost blew a gasket, but only what can you object to here? The magic of The Ancient One is magic of The Ancient One.”

“And what was in the box?”

“Wish I knew! Sardanapal opened it slightly all of a few moments, and then immediately slammed it shut and demanded Slander and Medusa to keep everything secret. ‘The most terrible thing,’ he stated, ‘I myself don’t know what can take place if what’s inside falls into the wrong hands. Even if this falls into the right hands, the consequences are unpredictable!’”

“And you didn’t try to have a look in there? You’re a ghost! You would pass through the wall just to send two letters!” Tanya was astonished.

Rzhevskii winced. The question clearly did not please him.

“Hm... Well, eh-eh... I tried to poke my nose, but nothing worked for me. The box didn’t let me through. Its walls are absolutely impenetrable. Moreover I accidentally floated out of the shadows, and here Slander noticed me... I didn’t even have time to look around and they immediately put the mute spell on me and banished me with a Briskus. And even with what! How often they jerked me, but to do this! I was simply screwed into the floor like some shabby corkscrew. Trust me, it’s difficult for me to figure out where was my head and where were my legs... I don’t even know how everything ended: whether Sardanapal hid the box in a new place or left everything as it was,” Lieutenant acknowledged.

Discussing the box, he did not forget to roam around the room and poke his nose in everywhere. He flew up to Coffinia’s bed, rumpled the sheets and, having looked into the powder-case, loudly snorted:

“What a pity my girlfriend, Unhealed Lady, is not here! All these flasks and jars are right up her alley. By the way, you know, she recently found in herself 300 new sores and all night flew after Eyeless Horror, transferring them! That one almost hung himself again. And then — hee-hee! — only add this: Lady said to Horror that he needs to order glasses! To blurt that out to our Eyeless! Allegedly he has such a foul nature because he doesn’t wear glasses. And he did nothing to her, only turned entirely green and evaporated.”

Tanya got up. She believed that Lieutenant had already spilled everything known to him and would simply carry on with nonsense now.

“Listen, one thing I don’t understand. If it’s such a secret, why did you prattle to me? What’s the point?” She asked, looking at the snoring Coffinia. The ones with tails from the comics, not losing time, painted green moustaches on her, Tanya attempted to drive them off, but they overturned the phial with the bright green polish onto Cryptova’s nose and with an excited chirp hid under the pillow. The girl thought that in the morning Coffinia would appear like a true hussar in profile and like a pig in full face. Her painted moustaches were clearly a match in size.

Lieutenant Rzhevskii waved his hands and, after jumping, leaving dirty tracks, passed through the wall.

“What do you mean why? You insult me, my dear! You want to ask someone, anyone will tell you. Where Baby Grotter is, instantly all kinds of nonsense will begin! Only don’t ask why it is so. I adore it when everything is interesting, when everything boils, goes from the feet to the head... Understand? Terribly boring to live hundreds of years continuously, when all around nothing interesting happens.”

“Uh-huh,” nodded Tanya. “Only don’t think that I’ll get mixed up in anything again.”

“You’ll get mixed up, and not by half!” Lieutenant assured her. “By the way, if you’re interested, we could set off for the garret and see if the box is in place. Only not today — Eyeless Horror is hanging around somewhere there today. How about going in three days, at full moon? Horror will leave for the basement to thunder with shackles, and we’ll rush by.”

“I’m not going with you,” stated Tanya, but, likely, the spectre did not particularly believe her.

Unexpectedly, uneasiness appeared on his face. He listened anxiously, growled something about nasty spies who would not stay away from him, the good-looking, began to make noise with the knives, and quickly began to thread into the ceiling. He definitely began a new attack of paranoia.

“One head is better, but two make a pair! So, in three days! Ciao, baby!” He whispered mysteriously and disappeared.